Human Rights Watch (HRW) announced on Friday that the mass trial of 68 Jordanians and Palestinians held by Saudi Arabia raises serious concerns about due process, amid charges of committing violations against the detainees.
In March 2018, the Saudi authorities carried out an arrest campaign targeting a group of Palestinians and Jordanians who had been living in the kingdom for a long time, based on vague allegations of supporting an unnamed "terrorist entity".
After some detainees were held for nearly two years without being charged for any crimes, the Saudi authorities started a mass trial behind closed doors on 8 March 2020, at the Specialised Criminal Court in Riyadh.
The international human rights organisation quoted members of some of the detainees' families, who saw parts of the indictments, stating that the charges included "joining a terrorist entity" and "assisting a terrorist entity", the name of which was not mentioned.
The prisoners' families confirmed that they were unable to obtain additional details about the accusations or specific evidence from the criminal indictments presented by the Saudi authorities during the first session of the trial.
Michael Page, deputy director in the Middle East and North Africa division at HRW, confirmed that: "Saudi Arabia's extended record of unfair trials raises suspicions that Jordanian and Palestinian defendants will face serious fabricated charges and harsh penalties."
Page continued: "Some of the detainees claimed that they were subjected to serious violations at a time when the coronavirus pandemic poses severe health threats to prisoners," emphasising that: "Saudi Arabia should consider alternatives to detention, especially for those in pre-trial detention."
HRW talked to six members of the families of the seven accused, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals against them or their imprisoned relatives.
The detainees' relatives stated that the Saudi security forces arrested five of the defendants during raids on their homes starting in 2018, and detained two others at airports while trying to leave the country.
The accused families referred to a set of violations which the Saudi authorities have committed against the defendants following their arrests, including enforced disappearance, prolonged solitary confinement and torture.
Two relatives reported that they were present during the house raids carried out by the security forces in February and April 2019, stating that: "A large number of security forces stormed the houses wearing masks and carrying rifles and cameras, as if they were going to a sort of battle."
The detainees' families also conveyed that, "The Saudi security forces were there when our children returned from school. A 14-year-old, upon her return, was subjected to interrogation, and the investigator was armed with a pistol."
Another relative noted that her 9-year-old daughter: "Was crying because they (the security forces) were terrifying, the way they were all over the house, and the way they looked. I had to tell her they were looking for a thief."
In another case, one of the detainee's relatives disclosed that on the night of the arrest, at around 4 am, four men in civilian outfits knocked on the door, saying that his relative's car had broken down.
He added: "When (the defendant) came to talk to them, they introduced themselves as being from the State Security Service. They told him that he had to come with them and that he would return after a few hours. The authorities refused for three months to inform his family about his whereabouts."
All six family members informed that they were unable to know the situation or whereabouts of their detained relatives for up to six months.
Some stressed that family members looked at the various investigation prisons, but the authorities denied the presence of their relatives there, some of whom later found that their relatives were in those prisons.
Enforced disappearance is defined under international law as the arrest or detention of a person by state officials or their agents, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty, or to disclose the fate or whereabouts of that person.
Some family members stated that their relatives told them that they were held incommunicado between two and six months, and then transferred to group cells. The authorities then allowed visits and telephone calls for them.
One of the defendants, who was arrested in April 2019 and held in solitary confinement for three months, told his family during their first visit to him in July, that the authorities interrogated him during that time only three times, for a period of 20 minutes each time.
Three family members revealed that their relatives told them during their prison visits that the authorities had tortured them during interrogations. One of the family members confirmed that after their relative was held incommunicado for 23 days, they were allowed to receive a family visit, but after that, communication between them stopped for two months.
The detainee was finally able to tell his family that he had been tortured in various places, including a hotel room and an underground location. "They used to wake him up at 5 am to put his head in hot water. Sometimes, they would leave him hanging upside down for two days," the person's relative explained.
Relatives pointed out that the authorities suspended the phone calls and visits of three defendants in August 2019 without explanation. Others confirmed that phone calls are usually limited to two or five minutes.
HRW quoted a witness who attended the 8 March session of the mass trial as stating that the judge entered the courtroom at 11:30 am and left at 11:50 am.
The witness also disclosed that the authorities presented the defendants to the judge, who asked them if they were guilty. It was only then that they gave them partial copies of their indictments that did not include evidence or the basis of the charges.
HRW was unable to obtain copies of the indictments, but relatives confirmed that the papers cited Articles 32, 33, 38, 43, 47, and 53 of the Saudi counter-terrorism system, all of which impose penalties for involvement with terrorist entities.
"The 2017 Saudi system of anti-terrorism and its funding includes very vague and broad definitions of terrorist acts, which are punishable by death sentences in some cases," the organisation stated.